Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The briar patch for a horror fan*

Here's the stack of short films and full-length features I have to get through by Saturday.

And don't forget to leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a DVD of Blacula and a signed copy of Blood Groove.

*If you don't know the reference, check here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Scare fare laid bare (i.e., my favorite horror films)

In anticipation of Halloween, and to get in the mood for my upcoming gig as a judge at the Madison Horror Festival, I thought I'd talk about my favorite horror films, why I like them so much and what I like (and don't) about horror films in general.

My favorite horror film remains George A. Romero's original 1979 Dawn of the Dead. The reasons are many, but here are three:

1) It captures the true quality of a nightmare. Zombies shambling through a brightly-lit shopping mall could easily be one of those dreams where the commonplace turns, with no warning or explanation, horrifying.

2) Time has only made the film's commentary on our consumer culture more prescient and biting. Zombies pawing at displays of things they desperately want but can't possibly use could be a metaphor for everything from the subprime lending debacle to Wal-Mart's strangling of small businesses.

3) It has a pie fight.

The second tier is made up of films that have shown a consistent ability to terrify at a truly visceral level. First among equals is The Exorcist, after a quarter-century still a film many people refuse to see. It does everything current horror films avoid: takes its time to build character, crafts a realistic setting for its horrors, and then, when it's got you good and hooked, lets fly without restraint. All those PG-13 "horror" films pale next to its relentless visceral and intellectual onslaught.

Joining Friedkin's classic is John Carpenter's masterpiece The Thing. Halloween might be a more traditional choice, and it's certainly a worthy film. But The Thing wins due to its intensity, its effects that show more imagination and skill than anything rendered on a computer, its refusal to suck up to the audience, and an ending that dares to leave the monster, the characters and the viewer uncertain who goes there.

Next to The Thing is another Carpenter jewel, In the Mouth of Madness. Perhaps my avocation as a writer predisposes me to like this one, but the idea that a novelist with Stephen King-like success could alter reality through the combined will of his fans is just too juicy. It's also told as a private-eye story, one of my favorite genres, and follows its premise to its logical conclusion.

The original version of The Wicker Man is a one-of-a-kinder: a horror film for sure, but one with musical numbers and without a single suspenseful scene set at night. Still, when Scottish policeman Edward Woodward realizes his fate at the end, horror takes the day.

Madison Horror Film Festival guest of honor Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator might not be true HP Lovecraft, but it has both the wit and the balls to show us extremes never before (or since) put onscreen. With a star-making turn by Jeffrey Combs and a level of gore as unrestrained as it is absurb, it created the sub-genre of horror-comedy that manages to serve both masters.

The most recent film to make the list is Session 9, in which an overworked asbestos crew cleans up an abandoned mental hospital. Using little besides filmmaking skill and a supremely awesome location, this low-budget shot-on-video flick shows that imagination and conviction are really the only things needed to make a horror film work (and does The Blair Witch Project one better by actually making sense).

There are some big names missing from this list, but there are reasons for that. I admire Wes Craven's massively fertile imagination, but his sadistic streak (he lingers on pain, not horror) turns me off. Guillermo del Toro's horror work is uniformly brilliant (I even like Mimic), but somehow they don't feel like horror films, more like dark fairy tales.

And if I thought Craven was sadistic, it's nothing compared to the whole torture-porn genre: horror films should be about more than merely watching people suffer. Likewise, the YARM syndrome (Yet Another ReMake) does little but line the pockets of people who have nothing but contempt for the horror audience (Dawn of the Dead and The Wicker Man have both endured pointless remakes, and The Thing is in the pipeline.*)

And I used to love Dario Argento; but Mother of Tears, the long-delayed conclusion to his Three Mothers trilogy (with Suspiria and Inferno), was so godawful and worse, so insulting to the fans that had clamored for it, that it left a sour taste that spread even to his monumental early work. I recognize this as a personal response, and make no pretense to objectivity. I simply know that whenever I see his name now, I think not of the brilliant color schemes of Suspiria or technical wizardry of Tenebre, but of Asia Argento literally crawling through shit, laughing hysterically.

So that's an overview of my take on horror film, which I'll be bringing (as well as a fanboy's glee at getting to meet Stuart Gordon) to the Madison Horror Film Festival the weekend of October 3-4. Leave a comment here before the end of the festival and you'll automatically be entered for a chance to win a DVD of Blacula, a movie featured in my vampire novel Blood Groove (and heck, I'll throw in a signed copy of the book as well).

*I know, Carpenter's The Thing is technically a remake, but it's actually a much truer adaptation of the source material. That's a whole different topic for a whole other post.

Monday, September 21, 2009

On the trail of local dragons

I knew about the trolls. They're all over town. And the Mustard Museum, for a while at least, remains here in Mount Horeb, WI.

But I'd never noticed the dragons.

That's irony for you. My upcoming novel BURN ME DEADLY deals with a belief in dragons, and here I was in a town that actually harbored some. I'm sure I'd seen them before, lurking from the eaves of the Chamber of Commerce building, or stretched along the top of the Military Ridge Trail shelter. But somehow, they didn't register. And then, as if some sort of magical cloaking spell had been broken, I saw them looking down at me, belching their stylized fire.

They look harmless enough. And their Scandanavian origins were plain. But there was mystery afoot, because when I asked at the Chamber of Commerce, no one knew where they came from. They couldn't remember a time when they hadn't been there. They pointed me toward City Hall, where my luck was no better. I left my phone number in case anyone did recall, but I didn't hold out much hope. Clearly the dragons were experts at hiding in plain sight.

A visit to the Prairie Bookstore and a talk with its wise bearded proprietor gave me my first clue. The dragons, he said, were inspired by those of nearby Little Norway.

So, accompanied by my ferocious Viking sidekick...

...I pursued my lone clue and headed for Little Norway.

To be continued in two weeks....

Monday, September 14, 2009

The core problem with JJ Abrams' Star Trek

(Warning: this post really shows my geekiness. I make no apology for it.)

I finally figured it out. And now, I have to share it.

I went to JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot prepared to dislike it. I generally hate remakes, even good ones, because no matter how well done (i.e., Battlestar Galactica), their success is merely a reflection of those who did the original work. But I ultimately did enjoy the film. It was fast-paced, funny and the liberties it took with canon did not seem to be arbitrary (i.e., "Let's make Starbuck a girl!"). But still, something bugged me about it.

It's the "Chosen One" syndrome.

In the original Trek, Captain Kirk was notable for being Starfleet's youngest captain, but beyond that, he was not singled out as special. He came up through the academy and served on different vessels in various capacities before finally being promoted to the captain's chair. And there was the implication that, as wild as they were, Kirk's adventures might not be unique; perhaps every other Starfleet captain was out there experiencing the same kind of excitement.

I don't presume to know Roddenberry's reason for this, but I sense it might be grounded in his own World War II military experience. In that war, everyone served; heroism was neither rare nor overly praised, and the idea of contributing to a greater good was crucial. You can see those aspects in the Star Trek he created and supervised (for example, in "Court Martial," Kirk encounters other members of his academy graduating class).

But then along comes Star Wars, and a subsequent generation of filmmakers who have spent their lives only as filmmakers. They bring nothing new to the table, no life experience or unusual perspectives, just all the films and TV shows they grew up watching (and their king is, of course, Quentin Tarantino). And everyone of that generation grew up watching Star Wars, where first Luke Skywalker, then in the prequels Anakin, assume the status of divinely chosen avatars.

So now we have a Kirk who was born in miraculous circumstances, found in a backwater burg by wise older warrior Captain Pike who then awakens the Force (whoops! I mean, his sense of duty) and invites him on a quest. In short order this mentor is eliminated, and Kirk must rely on the help of Han Solo (dang! I mean, Mr. Spock) to defeat the supervillain of the moment. If Eric Bana's Nero had said at the end, "No, Kirk, I am your father," it wouldn't have been that surprising.

And then there's a moment that's so contradictory to the previous incarnation of James T. Kirk that it soured the whole film for me. Kirk offers to rescue Nero's crew, but Nero refuses; Kirk then lets them all die. This is supposed to be (at heart) the same character who told the Metrons he wouldn't kill the Gorn captain? Who, when Maltz the Klingon protests "You said you would kill me," replies, "I lied"? Who repeatedly, after enduring violence and humiliation, offers friendship instead of punishment when he regains the upper hand?

Roddenberry's Kirk was a man who, at his best, was exactly who we'd want boldly going where no man has gone before. Abrams' Kirk is a boy delighted with his new toys, and is not even remotely who I'd want representing the human race.

Monday, September 7, 2009

At the Fiery Altar: the dragon cult of Burn Me Deadly

When I knew dragons -- or at least the belief in them -- would figure prominently in the second Eddie LaCrosse novel BURN ME DEADLY, I began to read as much as possible about their meaning in various societies, with an emphasis on those of Europe and the United Kingdom. The trope I wanted to examine was the classic (or cliche', as it may be) fire-breathing serpentine dragon, with wings and claws and an agenda such as hoarding gold or protecting a certain cave.

As I stated in an earlier post, my starting point was the dragon Vermithrax in the film Dragonslayer. That creature had it all: fire, wings, a physiognomy that could suspend disbelief and a ceremonial relationship that bordered on religion with nearby humans. But even with that as a template, I wanted to learn more, to make my folkloric dragons Lumina and Solarian into something substantial within their fictional frame of reference. After all, people worship and believe in them, so their mythology had to, bluntly, kick some ass.

I had a template in my own experience: southern Pentecostal snake handlers. They don't believe the snakes themselves are deities, but they certainly look on them as messengers of God's will. The belief that a pure heart will protect the faithful from a deadly creature works whether that creature is a rattlesnake or a dragon.

To create a comparable mythology for dragon worshippers, the indispensable book for me was British Dragons by Jacqueline Simpson. Written in 1980 (the second edition came out in 2001), it's a concise, eminently readable volume that deals with the origin of dragon stories in the UK and the concrete details that manifest when a society believes in dragons.

In it, I found an unexpected detail. In a majority of the dragon stories tied to specific locations and times (i.e., "this happened right here, fifty years ago") the stories end with the dragons being slain. So in addition to deifying the dragons, my worshippers would need a tale of a dragonslayer as well. That also had its origins in Christianity. St. George was the most famous dragonslayer, but hardly the only one; St. Columba supposedly faced down the dragon-like Loch Ness Monster.

As I studied tales of "dragonicide," one element I noticed was that the book's stories leaned heavily toward outsmarting and tricking the dragon, as opposed to the storybook image of the noble knight matching his strength against the dragon's. A dragon in Somerset, for example, is choked on a rock thrown down its throat prior to a roar. "More of More Hall" kills the Dragon of Whatley by kicking him with a spiked boot in his only vulnerable spot: his (as the book delicately phrases it) arsehole. And Sir John Lambton kills the Lambton Worm by studding his armor with spikes and letting the creature attack him.

I asked Dr. Simpson, who has collaborated with Terry Pratchett and held various offices in England's Folklore Society, about this. She said, "I think that whether the dragon is killed in straight heroic combat, or by a saint's holy power, or by a clever trick, depends chiefly on the genre of literature or tradition in which the particular tale is preserved. Saints' lives and heroic epics or sagas are serious stuff, produced by and for the elite, and aim to impress; folk legends often aim not just to thrill but to amuse as well. Clever tricks by which the an apparently weak or inferior person outwits and destroys the strong are popular -- an old woman defeating the Devil, an cobbler or tailor defeating a giant. I would assume that both the heroic dragon-slayings and the tricky ones go back an equally long time, but that the heroic ones look older because they have been preserved in old sources such as Beowulf."

Still, I liked the idea of outsmarting the beast rather than overpowering it. So in my story, the dragon is killed by a variation of Sir John Lambton's tactics. It's a folktale, of course, and no one, especially my hero Eddie LaCrosse, believes it for a minute.

At first.

But you'll have to read the book to find out more.

BURN ME DEADLY comes out this fall.